Social work recruitment crisis

Action is urgently needed

Sir, – Social work is currently going through a deepening recruitment and retention crisis.

Some of the outcomes of the workforce crisis in social work include service waiting lists, service users’ needs and human rights neglected, frontline social workers inadequately supported and supervised, culminating at the extreme in somewhat inevitable service breakdowns.

The issues involved also lead to multiple vicious circles of unsafely overloaded social work caseloads, worker burnout and exit from the profession.

Notably, some critical features distinguish this particular labour shortage from others: social workers are employed, delivering legally mandated and policy-driven services to vulnerable populations, in a range of critical roles and service areas. These include health, mental health, disability, child protection and welfare, old age, criminal justice and housing, among others.


As a result, relevant political and policy responsibility, in contrast to other professions, sits under the auspices of a number of Government Ministers and departments.

In practical terms, no single Minister, department or agency has overarching responsibility for strategic planning and management for social work services.

We do not even have reliable data on the numbers of social workers employed in the country, who they are and where they are deployed. The upshot is that social work workforce planning, at national level, has been in freefall for some time.

The Irish Association of Social Workers (IASW) recently published a scoping paper on the extent and nature of the problems facing the social work profession in terms of workforce planning. We also identified a series of solutions to those problems. The fundamental issue is that we do not have enough social workers in Ireland to begin with, and we are not replacing those who leave the profession at a sufficient rate. And that is before we even contemplate service expansion, already planned through new legislation, in the area of adult safeguarding, for example.

Some positive steps have been commenced, by individual organisations, in recent times. Unfortunately, these good initiatives are “siloed” and lacking system-wide coordination. Other initiatives, taken perhaps in desperation, such as inappropriate attempts to replace social work posts with other grades of worker, do not address the real problems and will in fact be counter-productive, if not reversed.

Now that matters have settled somewhat around the change of Taoiseach and Cabinet assignments, the IASW calls on Government to clarify which Minister is responsible for ensuring that there is a single, overarching, coordinated and cross-sectoral strategic plan for social work in Ireland, particularly focusing on workforce planning, and that that plan is clear to, and implemented by, those responsible.

Such clear and decisive action is needed urgently so that the profession as a whole, and the individual dedicated social workers in it, can be properly enabled and supported to provide essential services already mandated, as well as being in a position to prepare for and deliver on relevant service developments planned for the future. – Yours, etc,



The National Social Work Organisation of Ireland,

Dublin 2.